Thursday, January 11, 2018
‘A day late and a dollar short’ as they say and we pull up to the front door of Michindoh Conference Center. The air is brisk, although not as might be expected on a winter day in mid-January Michigan. The quiet here jumps out of the bushes and sings from the frozen trees. The lake, too, is frozen; seemingly dead, unmoving. It shivers under its own weight of wet and white.
There are hints of voices, of faces and laughter and prayers afoot; the gift of extended family burnt into the very carpet and walls. Memory serves well here and I am struck by its power. For this place represents something far beyond itself, a kind of knowing – the embrace of God through the embrace of friends. And I still feel that embrace like a long look down a hallway full of portraited eyes, the well-known smiles of those who truly know me, who long to be known.
For me, Spring Arbor University’s MSFL (Master of Spiritual Formation and Leadership) program was the end of a long search and the beginning of the best journey. And its demise demands a few words said in remembrance; both lament and praise.
In a sad twist of irony, this final Residency finished early. The annual sojourn to varied points around the country over more than a decade formed the unifying core of people, process, and prayer. With still another day to go that included a mini-concert to which I was looking forward (my modesty remains unchanged, despite God’s efforts), we had an early lunch and, with hardly a word, stepped into a travel van and barreled down Michigan back roads toward Detroit Metropolitan Airport.
The short but transformative ride of the Spring Arbor University Master of Spiritual Formation and Leadership comes to an ignominious , gently uncelebratory end. Twelve (or was it thirteen?) years were bundled up tight, held together by the prayers and pain, tears and triumphs of those who benefited from all it gave.
I remember its early years as clearly as mirrored sunlight. Filling the air was the visceral scent of a journey about to unfold. It hummed under our feet like standing on a factory floor. Seismic shiftings of spiritual earth began to crack open our darkness, but wide enough to drink deep the new wine of God’s quaking Spirit. Tangible expectation akin to those deliciously hopeful moments before physical touch sat enthroned in hungry hearts. It was erotic in the holiest sense.
With MSFL, it felt like I’d finally stumbled onto something worth surrendering to fully. Through all my academic career, wed to a curious soul, the answer waited agonizing years before its fruition in this MSFL program.
I had already attended seminary at the Canadian Southern Baptist Seminary (a veritable cascade of uncomfortable ironies in the title alone). I enrolled at Regent College, twice, and then at George Fox Seminary, twice. Nothing seemed to fit just right. Like settling for one thing because the thing hadn’t shown up yet.
MSFL was a clarion call to suckle the teet of God. That, indeed, I did, along with dozens of others over as many years. To hang out online with people who are not freaked out at your language, one’s love for weird stuff like darkness, light, candle-fed shadow, the deafening silence of the God who sings – a language that includes words like lectio divina, hesychasm, apophatic theology, theosis, and dark night of the soul is better than anything I can name.
Friday, January 12
Travel day. I sip my radically sub-par coffee made from suspicious-looking water. The sounds of the hotel are awake, humming with the activities of a morning, also awake. The gym calls but so does my bed, comfortable as hotel beds go.
My journal won the mental coin toss. My thoughts turn once more to the MSFL era, now winding down like a beautiful car that apparently just ran out of gas on the long and winding road of enlightenment. Stranded now, it awaits the buzzards of time and urgency to bear it away into the great garage in the sky. It is full of the rusty, dusty and musty ideas of days gone by. Ones that never got on the road but, like MSFL, simply ran into the ditch somewhere. Others never had the right parts, so they never got going in the first place. Still others raced out the door, speeding like bullets down the road to success but, ill-prepared for the dangers of that road, flung itself wildly into tailspin, crash and burn.
Besides the study itself, much of my time was spent in writing and facilitating liturgy for our annual January Residencies. It was a job in which I happily splashed about like a precocious little piggy. Moreover, I enjoyed having done so from the very beginning of the program when dozens of us sardined into a large classroom on the campus of Spring Arbor University to dream, pray and wonder at what the future might hold.
MSFL was a good idea. It still is, despite its demise. The irresistible gravitas of this program combined with the unassailable depth and quality of what it was designed to offer make this a profound loss indeed. What beautiful audacity to dream of a program uniquely constructed for the soul; for the benefit of shaping better lives and, together, a better world. As Tony Campolo says, quoting I know not who, “we seek to build a world where it is easier to be good.”
This was the aim and continual hope of MSFL. It was aimed directly at our humanity in all its complexities. It sought to embrace the heart in the arms of Jesus in order that we learn to do likewise. The very idea was captivating; not only for me but for numerous others as well.
Moreover, it held great appeal to others like me for whom the ideas, culture and practices of contemporary evangelism no longer tantalized. It titillated one’s spiritual hunger and curiosity, daring to use the pre-Reformation language of soul, sacrament, and sanctus of God. It presumed to challenge a rational, punitive, positional, scientific Christianity with a relational, transformative, restorative, mystical one. It sought to assert with insistence and intentionality that, to aim at the soul is, by extension, to aim at the world in which it finds context, meaning, and mission. It trumpeted life in proximity to the Divine dance that is Father, Son, and Spirit, spurning (or at least questioning) a hobby faith.
These claims were adopted and adored by the courageous (foolhardy?) folks tasked with leading us. Their commitment to formation, not just education, put it at odds with the academic establishment. Those for whom education consists primarily in growing heads, overstuffed and heavy, atop weary bodies and thirstier hearts, could still find something here. The program was often as intellectually rigorous as it was personally challenging. As such, it stood squarely against the prevailing dualism housed generally in the west, most specifically in evangelicalism.
Learning to think deeply is hard. Learning to live deeply is horrifying. The discipleship moniker is not “come and learn.” It is “come, and die.” No wonder it was a marketing impossibility. Shiny brochures, sleek websites and leading figures were one thing. Faithfully portraying the inherent dangers of communal vulnerability – and charging for it – was nigh impossible! Like a dead guy receiving his doctor’s bill.
MSFL was also an experiment in hybrid-learning experience. A primarily online degree, it asked the fair question, “can spiritual community, predicated upon spiritual development, be accomplished online?” Could a program erected on the belief that the spiritual formation enterprise is, at root, a relational-narrative one be successful in an isolated chat room?
The answer? Abso-freakin’-lutely! The cohort with whom I was blessed to journey, we lovingly dubbed “Conspirators”, ratified in seconds what we’d already experienced. The depth of our online life spilled over naturally in our face to face reconnaissance. Our first meeting wasn’t even love at first sight. That had already occurred previously in weeks of close-knit cyber-chat.
It was a consummation.
Now, with the double-edged sword of sadness and gratitude, I turn my head away from Master of Spiritual Formation and Leadership to the ongoing sojourn of My Slowly Forming Life. The former gave me inspired tools for the latter. The former gave me memories with which to build the former. With words certain to reveal my age, “we have the technology; we can rebuild him.” That was MSFL.
Adieu, dear souls.
French writer and poet, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, said: ““If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people to collect wood and assign them tasks…rather, teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.”
Anna is on her death bed. She has battled Alzheimer’s disease for almost 10 years. She hasn’t recognized her family for quite some time and this reality has left her terrified, confused. She is often angry. She believes a host of people are trying to trick her. Every unknown day arises again the next with all the same complexity and uncertainty. As her caregiver assists her in preparing for sleep, she hears Anna sing just outside her door: “then sings my soul, my Savior God to thee, how great thou art, how great thou art…”
She has forgotten every sermon she ever heard.
Every bible verse she ever memorized.
Every note she ever took in every bible study.
Every family member’s name.
But she remembers all the verses, word for word, of this great hymn. Why?
A young man in his late twenties battles with a choice. In his circle of friends, he has made the acquaintance of several lovely young women. He dates regularly. These women are delightful, intelligent, captivating. He looks forward to a time when home and family give him better reason to traipse to and from a busy downtown office day after day. A better life picture.
Erin is a Princeton post-doc student. Her dirty blond hair, cheerful demeanour, razor-sharp mind, and engaging repartée have been his regular experience of her. He’s reminded regularly by family and friends just how perfect she is for him. All the “pieces” fit together in a game too big to lose.
Brynne is girl-next-door pretty. Slightly chunky, but still shapely, and full of energy with a quick wit and uproarious sense of humour. Although not as book smart, she is equally intelligent. She is loud, often abrasive but never mean-spirited. She is funny, usually in embarrassingly public ways; opinionated, inadvertently pitting people against one another. She is clumsy and goofy and forgetful and messy and dangerous to his professional reputation.
And he can’t stop thinking about her.
What is happening here? All the facts line up in such a way as to present Erin as the obvious choice for a long-term relationship. Everything “fits.” She fills well the checklist on any relationship course he’s ever taken. Against his better judgment and flying in the face of the facts, Brynne rises to his mind continually. Something about her haunts him, chases him, wants him.
In our current church culture, we usually pose as the primary question of Christian discipleship “what do you believe?” And, pursuant to that question is the presupposition that you need all the facts before you can make an informed decision. I’d like to suggest however that an even more fundamental question is “what do you want?”
James K. A. Smith in his book “You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit” suggests that we are what we want. “Our wants and longings and desires are at the core of our identity, the wellspring from which our actions and behavior flow. Our wants reverberate from our heart, the epicenter of the human person…”
What we often generate in our churches is a fill-in-the-blanks doctrinal checklist that amounts to a legal transaction. It is more Descartian: “I think, therefore I am,” than biblical.
Our young man in question will of course do well to know his own heart to navigate whatever his future relationships hold. But in his inexplicable desire for Brynne over Erin, despite appearances to the contrary, we find a key to how God seeks to relate to us.
“Discipleship [then] is more a matter of hungering and thirsting than of knowing and believing.” Even the demons believe and shudder. Knowing facts is easy. Retooling the human heart and its longings is not. But, it is our truest path. That is my call: to work in the Spirit’s process of forming a kingdom people by means of the gathered community in worship.
St. Augustine is quoted as saying, “Love God and do whatever you please: for the soul trained in love to God will do nothing to offend the One who is Beloved.” Our discipleship is less about information than it is transformation.
We don’t instruct people deeper into kingdom life. We inspire them. The heart knows what it loves and that is what forms the foundation of our actions and our habits. Our journey is one of inspiring and shaping our heart’s deepest desires, bending them ever more toward Christ and his kingdom.
Our journey is to discover the beauty and holy peril, oddly comforting, of being adrift with God on the vastness of life’s open sea.
Lord, Saint Augustine once said we’re created by God and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in you. Sometimes the way to you can seem cloudy, or grown over with thistles and weeds. We thank you for our longings. We love because you first loved us. You’ve built it into our DNA. Help us not to be afraid of what most deeply moves us, even if that isn’t lofty or what we typically think of as holy. Instead, grab hold of our hearts and shape them, Lord. Form in us a new and undeniable passion for life with God and others. And that, Lord, will be our truest joy. Amen.
Morning Prayer – Sunday
With tear-drenched voices,
lungs outstretched to sing,
our guts emboldened, well-fed
on flesh, broken –
and tongues to taste blood from a cup,
let our tiny reverie resound
in the vast echo of your heart,
beating like yours.
Morning Prayer – Saturday
In our frantic days
carved more in years than hours,
remind our hands to reconnect
to our yearning,
our feet to our love and, together,
find again our place
in the bosom of God.
Morning Prayer – Friday
When the light of a thousand moons
wasn’t enough to peal the skin
from our vexing thoughts,
help us recognize ourselves in you,
gazing back at us in the mirror
of the young sky.
Morning Prayer – Thursday
Lord, sometimes we laugh.
And our chuckles of contentedness
are just tall enough to reach the table
upon which is spread
a riotous meal of grace.
Where all laughter begins.
As I deepen, glacially but surely, in the Way of Jesus I am finding freedom in the manner, frequency, and creativity of spiritual intercourse. There are a number of factors in these discoveries. I am getting older – a fact, apparently, applicable to all. The passing chronos lends a certain gravitas to the focus of kairos. And, the slow-cook crockpot of my formation adds fewer ingredients every year to an already complicated soup. Sometimes it’s not more, or even better, ingredients that are required for the quintessential meal. Sometimes it’s the right ones at the right time that leave the palette happy and wanting more.
As I’ve written numerous places, the past few years have been richly experimental in regions of contemplative prayer. Learning to love silence. Seeking out solitude. Making friends with simplicity. Studying the nuanced coup d’etat of lectio divina. Prayer walking. Being enriched through congregational liturgy. Journalling the works.
All these and more continue to contribute to whatever Rob, slightly enhanced, may be forthcoming off the stove.
But something is changing. With the increasing 20/20 available through the grace of kairos and the experience of chronos, I’m latching more and more onto the fluidity and ubiquity of unceasing prayer, specifically as it has come to be associated with who I am more than an action to which I commit. If in fact it is true that God is omnipresent, theologically, and an unceasingly constant spiritually, then it should come as no surprise that prayer can and perhaps should be, everything.
There is a state of being available to all persons everywhere that is readily found in that which most thrills the soul. For some, the ticking clock, counting the passing hours immersed in good literature. For others, it is the choir of smells united in one explosive song on a nature walk. For still others, it may be culling from the raw ingredients of the earth, something rich and flavorful with which to delight the tastebuds of friends and family.
For me, it was music and writing.
As a teen, and a budding musician, I would often sit for hours on the front step of our house simply playing my guitar. The notes, some of them good, others lined up for the shower, collided together to produce more than just music. They created space; a kind of generous openness to whatever the universe was at the time. A particular kind of peaceful “zen” or as Thomas Merton might call it, “contemplative awareness” resulted, leaving me just where I needed to be. This was true even as I spent countless agonizing hours learning impossibly difficult melodies (I certainly thought so at the time!).
In recent months, as more conventional understandings of contemplative prayer have waned a bit, I’ve had a certain yearning to resurrect this practice. And resurrection has been the result. To plant myself on a lawn chair a few feet from my rose bushes (such as they are) and play music inspired by the same, in tune with the wind, has once again ushered in a holy Presence. It has centered me like nothing else lately.
It has also brought a much cherished simplicity and deepening unification of all I am into pulsating notes, maybe not always in tune, but always tuning. Music, once again, has become for me the changing face of prayer, changing me.
There are smart people out there with books and articles and quotes intimating that the wick of the worship wars flame has burned to a stump. Now, only sticky wax remains out of which we may safely pull something shapely and useful. Whether that is true or not I can’t really say. But, we’ve been sailing post-modern seas long enough to have emerged in a somewhat better place regarding shared worship practices. What interests me most however lies much deeper than mere ritual.
So much of our corporate experience of ecclesiastica these days is about efficiency, effectiveness and euphoria (no extra charge for the cute alliteration). Even big box churches like Saddleback and Willow Creek are recognizing that it’s much easier to draw crowds than deepen congregations. Spend enough money in the right places, position the right people in your dream team staff and learn the angles (this, apparently, means relevance or some such thing) and success is all but guaranteed.
A scourge, not just of contemporary faith and practice, but of early New Testament times as well, is that of pragmatism; visible, quantifiable, “helpful” theology. If some practice of faith doesn’t yield measurable results it is considered suspect, superfluous; even useless. Dead-weight. Dross. The average church building boasts classrooms for every grade, meeting rooms for everything from Ladies’ Teas to A.A. to Family Ministries. Closet space is dedicated to coats, robes, wedding paraphernalia, soup bowls and Christmas decorations. Signs in the Narthex (lobby, foyer) proudly point to these rooms, giving visitors the impression that this is a church on the move. Look at us, we’re not idle. We’re doin’ stuff. Good stuff. Lotsa stuff. It’s exhausting just to consider the dizzying possibilities, let alone dive in.
In our culture, if an idea or practice isn’t immediately and continually beneficial for coffers, volunteers, or givers, it is suspect at best, anathema at worst.
I committed my life to Jesus while driving home to Calgary from a pub gig in Edmonton. A creeping loneliness blending with a troubled psyche was replaced by a lightness of mind and heart I can only describe as…good. Really, really good. I was barely eighteen and living at home. That very evening, my own gratitude and joy spilled over to my Mom, who became the surprised recipient of a fifty-dollar bill for doing my laundry. There is nothing quite like the joy of lavish waste in the name of thanksgiving. Well, and the look of delightful surprise with concerned consternation on someone’s face on the receiving end of such magnanimity.
As I’ve been discovering ever since, such acts are nothing new. Happy hearts become ready harbors for such ships of gratitude, over-laden with desire to be offloaded onto the object of their affection. The Gospel is all about waste and abundance in the name of love; the praise of those who get what it means to be seen. To be known. If you don’t believe me, ask your wife if the time spent making love might not be better spent painting the guest room. I dare say it might be a venture that just prepped your new sleeping quarters. The scriptures are replete with examples of extravagance in the name of love.
I am rather fond of a seedy picture of a woman, obviously swooning in gratitude for the courteous and loving attention of a well-known Rabbi casually saunters over and basically pours her beer on Jesus. Well, actually super expensive perfume. Like, way expensive. A rather sexual act by any standard, it alone deserves volumes for it speaks of much more than simple extravagance. Jesus affixes theological significance to the act. And, of course, the pragmatists in the crowd, thinking themselves in-sensed out of high ideals jump all over it.
Of course, as we can always expect under such lavish displays of unadorned praise offered inappropriately to the wrong person at the wrong time in the wrong way, self-proclaimed keepers of the moral gates then, as now, cry foul. They either spit out their tea or drop their knitting needles. By the way, have you ever wondered where those sneaky bastards always come from? They’re positively creepy in their ubiquity as though finding crevices behind rocks, under the dining room table, or behind the rhododendrons.
The scriptures are replete with such acts of selfless wastefulness. Joseph of Arimathea, one of Jesus’ wealthier followers, became his post-mortem patron in the form a top tier burial plot. Not the magnanimity one would generally prefer, but there it is; another example of a heart needing to express itself in wealthy waste. King David craves water be brought him while facing the brutal Philistines but decides instead to pour out the most valuable currency in the desert back to the desert. He too knew the art of worshipful waste.
Although an overused example, it serves to illustrate my point here; if this woman by her act has openly laid bare her heart, swollen in the ache of gratitude, then she shows us what worship truly is. What it means to adore someone. And her risky act of risqué devotion mirrors God’s own character. Jesus is God’s wasted perfume. Jesus understands her because he understands his own journey into the dark abyss of broken humanity. It is a pilgrimage of pain, not the pain of the cross primarily, but the pain of loss and loneliness.
She mirrors the heart of God who knows only too well the art of wasting perfume.
My post concerning my ongoing prayer experiment has been a particularly popular one. My guess is that it touches a certain “soft spot” among seekers out there just like me who yearn for the rediscovery of something: contemplative prayer and how to get there. I’m thankful I am not taking this journey alone but do so with a myriad of others just as thirsty as I to reclaim what was lost at the Reformation and sealed up tight post-Enlightenment…mystery.
This was the post-post prayer that I added. I’ll let it speak here on its own. I trust it does just that…speak.
Shalom, dear ones
Lord, fashion, in slow calligraphy, your name
in a once-stone heart, broken now as sand.
Spit out the bones of my old, gristled soul revivified on your tongue,
reattached to the sinews of your own holy arm.
Sear the brand of white hot remembrance into the skin of my brazen back
so that only those I lead can see it.
In the wordless chatter of our silent conversations,
bring up the topics closest to your heart that breaks so much easier than mine.
Let the voices of a hundred thousand saints
crowd out the stifling arrogance of my solitary blethering.
And into that holy community of singing silence,
sing, Holy One, sing.
Picture found here.
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